Saturday, July 8, 2017

Classic Doctor Who: ranked & reviewed (#90 - #81)

Continuing my countdown of Classic Who serials, from my least-liked to my most-loved. (For the previous ten, click here; to start from the top, click here. Or if you're looking for a particular serial, you can jump right to the index.) We're nearly halfway through, and fittingly, midway through this next ten, we moved from serials that I consider flawed, but with elements I quite love, to serials that I quite love, despite their flaws.

90. Destiny of the Daleks (Fourth Doctor, 1979)
written by Terry Nation
directed by Ken Grieve

As always, Terry Nation's latest Dalek script is a retread of a half-dozen things he's done before, so let's talk about the one knock-off that actually works: Romana's outfit. A playful homage to the Doctor's own costume, it looks good at all the worst moments. The double-length white scarf is particularly attractive draped against the blue TARDIS doors, as the Doctor and his companion touch down in yet another quarry. The mauve pirate boots come in handy when Romana's forced to navigate one of Terry's treacherous terrains. The white open-collar blouse, empire-waisted pants and embroidered suspenders make a nice picture as she's backed against a wall in the requisite "surprise" appearance of the Daleks at the end of Part 1. The pink coat, with its mauve trim and full skirt, looks striking against the rocks and rags of the latest Dalek labor camp, where humans toil until they're exterminated. So when the serial falters, you can just focus on Romana's attire (and actually, you can just focus on Lalla Ward in general, as this is the first story filmed in which she, the writer and the costumer all seem to be on the same page) -- although to be fair, "Destiny of the Dalek" has other felicities: a sturdy model spaceship; a good-looking ruin; and smooth direction by Ken Grieve, with a heavy assist from steady-cam. As happened in the Pertwee era, a "serious" Dalek story is followed by a "funny" one. Here, though, it's hard to tell if the spirit of mockery (most of it directed at the Daleks' creator, Davros) stems from Nation, or from some combination of script editor Douglas Adams' sensibility, Tom Baker's mood, and Grieve's approach. When the Doctor hijacks the wheelchair-bound megalomaniac and starts shuttling him double-speed from room to room, it feels like a slapstick black comedy -- but it's followed by a stark scene in which the Doctor allows three prisoners to be slaughtered before returning Davros to the Daleks. The juxtaposition makes it doubly uncertain who's masterminding the lighter tone -- but ironically, that uncertainty keeps you on your toes. Whoever's responsible, whenever the serial asserts its irreverent spirit, it instantly becomes livelier and more inviting, and never more so than late in Part Three, when Davros goes into one of his typically tyrannical rants, and the Doctor promptly carts him upstage and off the set. And even though Davros keeps screaming all the way out the door -- lines he no doubt believes are consequential -- Grieve undermines him by refusing to follow him. In "Destiny," Davros is such an ineffectual leader, even the camera ignores him.

89. Pyramids of Mars (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Robert Holmes & Lewis Greifer (as "Stephen Harris")
directed by Paddy Russell
Classic Whovians love a good underdog story, and so serials in which the story editor was left in the lurch with an unusable draft -- and had to do a massive overhaul in record time -- are too often overrated, particularly if the story editors are revered ones like Robert Holmes and Douglas Adams. How fun it is to imagine that a great writer, working under the gun on pure adrenaline, will turn out an instant classic practically overnight. The truth of "Pyramids of Mars" is that it contains a half-dozen plot contrivances that, under any other circumstances, would be decried by fandom: bit players (here, a poacher) inconsequential to the plot, leading us on time-killing tangents; the latest scientific advances lying around when you most need them; the Doctor in ludicrous disguise, trying to thwart the materialization of a villain you know is inevitable. And of course, the entire last episode, which dissolves into a remake of "Death to the Daleks," replete with random hazards and puzzles. By then, even the combined forces of Paddy Russell, Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and production designer Christine Ruscoe can't save it. (Ruscoe will be defeated again a year later by the final installment of "Hand of Fear," another piece of booby-trap claptrap. By then, shouldn't she have figured out how to move from "our world" to an alien minefield without going all garish?) But up to that point, the four of them have meritoriously minimized the script's failings. For starters, the serial probably boasts Baker's best Doctor Who performance. It's his first story filmed for Season 13, and in the hiatus between seasons, he's determined just how dark he dares take his Doctor, just how much he wants to crank up the intensity; the result is the first in a string of ferociously good performances. The Doctor is as ill-tempered in "Pyramids of Mars" as in any serial, but Baker insists he has a right to be disagreeable; he tells you it could be the end of the world, and no two ways about it: you believe him. (And he modulates his rage with quick flashes of heart and humor that Lis Sladen amplifies.) And the look of the serial! The images are so richly textured, they seem to have been brush-painted on the screen. With Sarah's off-white dress and the ivory linen jackets and tweed suits worn by several of the men, all set against rolling lawns and forests, it's a study in woody greens and beiges and browns: a color palette rarely exploited on Doctor Who. The story itself may be pure moonshine, but few serials -- for three episodes out of four, at least -- were ever carried out with such care.

88. The Dalek Invasion of Earth (First Doctor, 1964)
written by Terry Nation
directed by Richard Martin
For every great moment, there's an equally awful one to follow: was there ever a serial with so many exultant highs and so many distressing lows, and in such rapid succession? The failings are largely Martin's; it's his third Who assignment, but he seems as green as he did when he and the Daleks made their first appearance, a year earlier. The script is bookended by two set-pieces -- one in Episode 2, in which the TARDIS crewmembers are separated, and one in the conclusion, in which they're reunited -- and Martin muffs them both. The one in Episode 2, an assault on a Dalek ship, is a particular mess, as three sets of characters go into battle -- humans, "robomen" and Daleks -- and when it's over, you're left thinking, "What just happened?" The humans had a bomb to use against the Daleks; did it work? They hoped to dismantle the robomen; were they successful? The Doctor and Ian were trapped on the ship; did they escape? Thank heavens the Daleks themselves spell it out in the following episode: "Has the attack been defeated?" "Most of the rebels were killed or wounded." (Without that information, you'd be sunk.) Martin hasn't yet learned -- nor would he learn during his time on Who -- how to highlight essential information when the action is diffuse; when scenes get busy, every encounter and camera shot take on equal weight. (Ian's reunion with a new friend in Episode 3 is similarly botched.) But when it comes to shooting simple exchanges (Susan and David bonding over her desire to put down roots, Barbara and Jenny bonding over grand larceny) and hitting the necessary character beats, that Martin can manage. And when it comes to stark visuals -- the first-act cliffhanger appearance of the Dalek, ascending from the deep; Ian's fifth-act cliffhanger, as he plummets into the planet's core -- he seems very much in command. Ironically, though Martin's not much of a technician, he's a born showman. (His best serial, "The Web Planet," is a feast of showmanship.) Bringing the Daleks to Earth for their sophomore serial is a savvy move; the location shooting makes "Dalek Invasion" feel like an event -- and Martin showcases the scenery to maximum effect. Every time the serial threatens to get muddy or fussy, Martin manages another visual stunt that reels you in, or serves up an intimate encounter that refocuses the action. And blessedly, the last ten minutes, devoted to Susan's decision to stay behind (a decision her grandfather ultimately makes for her) is supremely satisfying: a vivid reminder that Doctor Who remains -- at the end of its first, long recording block -- a series not merely about fantastic adventures, but about the effect those adventures have on four intrepid travelers.

87. Fury From the Deep (Second Doctor, 1968)
written by Victor Pemberton
directed by Hugh David
The quintessential Troughton story -- not because it's the best, but because it cobbles together elements used throughout the era. There's the mind-controlling monster, the scientific compound, the intractable leader, the multi-cultural cast. You've seen it all before, and you've probably seen it done better -- but "Fury From the Deep" is the hardest Classic Who serial to judge: the surviving audio, few video clips, and creative team's resumés provide so few clues. The soundtrack alternates between scenes of Pinter-esque pauses and noisy, relentless set-pieces; as David's only other Who credit is the shapeless "Highlanders," was he able to fill the former and streamline the latter? The foam-producing seaweed at the heart of the story-line might look sensational, or it might look silly. And although the performances seem effective in the audio, on one of the surviving video clips, Roy Spencer (as second-in-command Frank Harris) looks amateurish; he may be one of those actors who sounds more credible than he is, and might well drag the serial down. Here's what we know, on the plus side. The airy seaside backdrop is a smart contrast to the setting of the previous serial, the claustrophobic "Web of Fear." The few moments the serial lowers its voice are gripping -- the climax to Episode 2 ("It's down there, in the darkness, in the pipeline -- waiting"), and Maggie Harris's wading into the sea at the end of Episode 3, as a transfixed Robson looks on -- and the relaxed dinner-party coda is a delight. A scene in which the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria return to the TARDIS to conduct an experiment is a triumph: you're reminded -- as you witness Victoria's prowess in the laboratory -- that her father was a scientist, and realize he passed on a bit of his knowledge and talents to her. And tonally, unlike its Season 5 stablemates, "Fury From the Deep" doesn't aim for scary -- it aims for scary-funny (e.g., the block-comedy helicopter bit in Episode 6); how well it achieves that aim is unclear, but the aspiration is admirable. In the debit column, Robson refuses to listen to reason longer than just about any human in Classic Who history, and worse, Victoria gets a strangely mean-spirited send-off, as her penchant for screaming becomes the means of defeating the monsters. Her departure is irritatingly telegraphed to boot; her kidnapping in Episode 5 would be reason enough for her to give up traveling with the Doctor and Jamie, but new story editor Derrick Sherwin decides to have her continually moan about the dangers she's had to endure, hoping it'll make her decision to stay with the Harrises more realistic. It doesn't; it risks making her so whiny that we'll be glad to see her go. But all is forgiven by the end, when Jamie and Victoria say their goodbyes in a touching scene: remarkably, the last time that one companion will see another off until the departure of Nyssa, fifteen years later.

86. The Masque of Mandragora (Fourth Doctor, 1976)
written by Louis Marks
directed by Rodney Bennett
There are so many good ideas lurking beneath "Masque of Mandragora," it's a shame only half of them bubble to the surface. Marks had specialized in Renaissance Italy while completing his doctorate, and his work tended to be more character- than action-oriented. It seems like a perfect match of scripter and setting. But ironically, although the show was starting to moving away from its gothic horror sensibility, it's like Marks didn't get the memo. The serial too often seems content to use the Doctor and Sarah Jane as peril monkeys: all of the rivalries and machinations of the court that, for example, had proven so invigorating in "The Massacre" -- and would, one have thought, have played to Marks' strengths -- are minimized, to devote more time to half-hearted horrors (the earthly manifestation of the Mandragora Helix; sacrifices to Demnos, the Roman god of moonlight) that don't really come off. Rodney Bennett is not the most facile of directors; his work is more than a touch sterile, and one wonders what the shoot might have been in the hands of a Paddy Russell. But the serial looks lovely, and the jester who does backflips and the fire-eating juggler are icing on the cake. And two guest turns lift it above the commonplace. As Guliano and his companion Marco, Gareth Armstrong and Tim Pigott-Smith are both unaffected without ever seeming anachronistic. Pigott-Smith, of course, would have the more impressive career, but Armstrong has to do most of the heavy lifting here, and commends himself admirably. He's instantly likable -- open faced and appealing -- and the scenes between him and the Doctor, and between him and Sarah Jane, are some of the loveliest of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era. (Lis Sladen has already started to disengage a bit, to inject the sort of jokiness that would come to stain Tom Baker's tenure on the show, but Baker is still at his best.) They have an warm, relaxed and unforced quality that the era rarely achieves, and they're the sort of thing that Marks did better than just about any scripter at that time. You'd be content to spend your time watching Guiliano learn about life from the Doctor, but you keep getting interrupted by generic scares. "Masque" is a fine tale, but somewhere in there, there's the story Marks actually wanted to write, and it's probably a classic.

85. The Sontaran Experiment (Fourth Doctor, 1975)
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Rodney Bennett
The Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry transmat to Earth in the far future, before the human race -- driven off by solar flares -- has repopulated the planet. Harry keeps fading in and out as he lands. "Are you coming or going," the Doctor inquires, "or going or coming?" Eventually, they remember about Sarah Jane, whom they find upside-down in the muck, her yellow trousers and orange boots swinging in the breeze. Those opening moments tell you pretty much everything you need to know to enjoy "The Sontaran Experiment," the most unlikely of Baker-and-Martin scripts. Forget their penchant for overwritten exposition; don't expect their usual deluge of scientific jargon. "The Sontaran Experiment" is like a French farce set on a hillside -- all entrances and exits, and missed connections. It's the sort of serial where if someone insists, "I'm going to fetch so-and-so," they won't be there when they arrive -- and if the other person responds, "I'll wait here," they won't. Where there's not just someone spying on the Doctor, there's someone spying on the one who's spying on the Doctor. Where if the Doctor complains that it's "typical of Harry" to go tumbling down a mountainside into a ravine, you can bet he'll be taking that very same trip thirty seconds later. "The Sontaran Experiment" is one of the funniest of classic serials -- at one point, a funny man is chased by a funny robot and falls to a funny death -- and a lot of Classic Who fans don't like funny. It runs so contrary to the aspirations and aesthetic of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, some fans outright loathe it -- but that's just them expecting it to be something it isn't, and you can't blame Baker and Martin for that. Nor can you blame them for giving away the (excellent) Part 1 cliffhanger in the serial's title: that one's on Philip Hinchcliffe. You can blame Baker and Martin for Part 2 falling to pieces a bit, and for a denouement that manages to be both flip and flat. But the addition of Styles in the second half compensates for a lot. He presents himself as a Sontaran warrior, testing human beings to gauge their resistance to an incoming invasion fleet -- but that's merely a cover. At heart he's just a simple sadist, conducting studies that are determinedly unscientific. He describes one bit of torture as "resistance of pressure on the human breast cage"; moments later, he says it's all about "the compressibility of human tissue." He's having so much fun, he can't even keep track of his lies, and he's ultimately so outrageous that the torture comes to be all of a piece with the entrances, the exits, the chases, the tumbles and the missed connections. Mary Whitehouse, the series' bête noire, who condemned many a Hinchcliffe-Holmes serial, even saw fit to criticize this one, for its portrayal of "helpless adults in a state of terror." Apparently, she wasn't a fan of French farce.

84. The Ribos Operation (Fourth Doctor, 1978)
written by Robert Holmes
directed by George Spenton-Foster
It's blessed with two of Who's greatest conmen, played with flourish and style by Iain Cuthbertson and Nigel Plaskitt. It's got a facile director, and a strong supporting cast, and a plot that, for at least three-quarters of its length, hums along nicely. But most of all it's got Mary Tamm. It's always fascinating to see the first appearance of a companion when (more often than not), the director of the serial has chosen the actor. Here Spenton-Foster was very much involved in the casting of Romana, and he clearly adores Tamm, frequently letting Holmes and Baker indulge in one of their high-handed soliloquies -- then inching the camera over to her, letting her button it with a response (typically withering). The tug-of-war between writer/star and director/co-star is a fascinating one that enlivens the serial more than it undermines it. Holmes writes Romana as he kept writing Leela (Chris Boucher's conception to the contrary): as a new TARDIS companion in need of instruction and worldview. Since the Doctor doesn't want her around, he'll tuck her under his wing and shape her into someone suitable. But Spenton-Foster doesn't shoot it that way, and Tamm doesn't play it that way -- and by the following serial, the new writers, script editor and producer don't go that way. They flip the script, recognizing the fun in the pupil outshining the master. And Baker instantly seems to see the wisdom, and comes to relish a new TARDIS dynamic he hadn't initially envisioned liking; in short time, he seems reinvigorated. For the following three stories, he's largely free of the dreary double-takes that deadened the last six or seven serials (there's still a miserable one at the end of Part 2 of "Ribos," the sort that, happily, won't appear again till "Kroll"), or some of the lazy acting choices he resorts to here. (At one point, he invokes the Black Guardian's name in front of Romana, then realizing he was supposed to keep that information private, he turns it into a giant "oops" moment: gasping loudly and cupping his hand over his mouth; it's like bad high-school theatrics.) "The Ribos Operation" effectively sows the seeds of the Key to Time season; the soil will just need to be overturned before the story-line can fully blossom.

83. The Curse of Peladon (Third Doctor, 1972)
written by Brian Hayles
directed by Lennie Mayne
Pertwee was at his dramatic best when the Doctor was caught off guard and defenseless, and at his comic best when entertaining a disguise. Hayles strands him on the planet Peladon (the TARDIS lands on a mountain ledge and tumbles down a cliff), has him mistaken for a German delegate and embroils him in the intrigues of the court; it's a serial that plays to all his strengths, and Pertwee responds with one of his best performances. It's more muted than you'd expect -- it has some of the gentleness he'd adopt in Seasons 10 and 11, once he's regained control of his ship and let go of the "angry exile" persona -- but it never goes limp. His features -- his eyes in particular -- always seem alert. (Pertwee had the gift for conveying a lot of information silently, in a way that several of the other Doctors, most notably Tom Baker, could not. A brief scene in Episode 3 where he attaches a revolving mirror to his sonic screwdriver, nearly hypnotizing himself before beaming with pride at his accomplishment, is a mini-masterpiece of mime.) He even manages to salvage the by-now-requisite scene where he calls Jo an idiot. As for Jo, Katy Manning struggles with some of the dramatic requirements, but it's the first time her character is allowed to show a bit of comic initiative, and here the actress shines. As the planet's king, a ruler who has to learn to lead with his heart, David Troughton is miscast -- or perhaps more accurately, cast against type; his role calls for a romantic leading man, one who'll tempt Jo once an episode with a marriage proposal, but Troughton is incapable of doing merely that, and instead gives the proceedings a gravitas and a poignancy that you're never fully convinced is there in the scripting itself. Although it serves as an allegory for the UK's concession to the common market, "Curse of Peladon" touches on the themes without getting bogged down in them; it doesn't get bogged down in anything. From its buoyant beginnings, though, it does descend into something more routine, with the Doctor soon accused of a crime he didn't commit and then set up for a second crime, for which the punishment is (of course) death. But the let-down in the second half doesn't detract from your enjoyment. This is Doctor Who doing what it does best, and if bits here and there fall apart, you understand that the series hasn't done a story like this in three years -- the sort of "let's take a visit to an alien world and see how it goes" scenario that used to be its bread and butter -- and you forgive them for being a bit rusty.

82. Paradise Towers (Seventh Doctor, 1987)
written by Stephen Wyatt
directed by Nicholas Mallett
It's got such charm and playfulness – rooted in a solid satiric concept – that its excesses don't matter much. McCoy is ingratiating throughout: engaging the Red Kangs in a ceremonial greeting, introducing them to the pleasure of a can of soda -- he's both unassuming and commanding, a heady combination for only his second time at bat. (In terms of sophomore outings, it's probably the most confident performance a Doctor had offered to that point -- in fact, too often Classic Doctors lost ground their second time before the camera: Troughton with "Highlanders," Davison with "Visitation.") Stephen Wyatt has a superb understanding of what to do with McCoy, as he'll show again in "Greatest Show in the Galaxy"; his Doctor is so endlessly fascinated that it keeps his outrage in check. But if McCoy gives the serial its muscle, it's Howard Cooke's Pex, the would-be muscle-man, who gives it its heart. He's energetic and endearing -- one of the most delectable characterizations of the classic series' later years. There's something about Pex's treatment by the Kangs that makes him instantly sympathetic -- but Wyatt is careful not to demonize the Kangs: our affection for all the oddballs that populate the building is crucial to his plan. And yes, there's a bit too much of the cannibal ladies in the first half. And yes, in an ideal universe, Richard Briers, once he turns into a zombie (his word, in the DVD extras), would have dialed it back about 60% -- but it's the only discordant note, and in its defense, Classic Who was never good about curtailing the excesses of its guest stars. (Fortunately, the actors forced to play opposite Zombie Briers -- McCoy and Cooke and Clive Merrison, as his Deputy -- maintain an even hand and a straight face, and help normalize him.) Ultimately, and fittingly, in its tale of a dystopian society forged in a high-rise of horrors, "Paradise Towers" comes to offer a sense of community. One of the loveliest moments comes near the end, when the remaining Rezzies appear at the pool, and one of them appeals to her neighbors, "I fear we may need your help." And of course, the Kangs, after a quick deliberation, welcome them. They welcome Pex too, whom they've been bullying since the birth of the building. "Paradise Towers" is a serial about the unlikeliest forces coming together to fight a common enemy -- and implied in its message is that the Doctor's community of gentle misfits includes us. For the first time in years, Doctor Who has an embracing spirit. It's irresistible.

81. Mission to the Unknown (First Doctor, 1965)
written by Terry Nation
directed by Derek Martinus
At its best, the spirit of the Hartnell era is everything you want Who to be. It's daring. It's unpredictable. It's a show eager to explore its potential and defy its limitations: to challenge itself and its audience's expectations. It never strives or settles for a "formula," except the one that serves as the show's premise: the sheer wonder of traveling through time and space, without ever knowing what your next destination might be. And if indeed you respond to the Hartnell era, it's hard not to love "Mission to the Unknown," as it's the ultimate example of the creative team working without a net -- crafting a one-part prequel to "The Daleks' Master Plan" that includes none of the regulars, not even the Doctor, but counts on the popularity of the Daleks to see it through. Which is does, abetted by a lean Bond-ian script, crackling direction by the up-and-coming Martinus, and a charismatic guest turn by Edward de Souza. Seen in hindsight, "Mission to the Unknown" doesn't seem all that different from the start of the Colin Baker serials, which often take so long introducing an alien planet and a guest cast that the Doctor doesn't arrive till twenty minutes in. But in 1965, at a time when the Doctor and his companions typically served as our way into the stories -- when most serials still opened by reflecting on the previous adventure and segued gracefully into "where are we now?" banter -- "Mission" no doubt felt revolutionary. The whole thing is wildly melodramatic, taking place in an alien jungle where killer thorns turn people into plants -- but that doesn't mean it's not effective. The music makes it feel like a pot-boiler from the '30s, like one of the B-movies churned out by RKO or Universal at the time, but of course, some of those films turned out wonderfully. (In setting, it quite resembles the great RKO programmer Five Came Back.) And although Jeremy Young is a bit overwrought, Edward de Souza -- barely a decade into an extraordinary career that continues to this day -- has a relaxed and commanding presence, and easily slips into the role of hero and star. Ultimately, it's a full-length teaser whose goal is simply to make you say, "I can't wait to see what happens next" -- and that being the case, "Mission" accomplished.

Next, continuing the countdown, #80-#71: cavemen, Condo and the common cold.

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